A Round of Memorable Op-Eds This Week

While I've been around the clock a number of times with some of the most astute and compelling pieces of journalism across publishers this week, I wanted to shine a light on a few notable opinion editorials for the weekend. These aren't overly long, and they're stitched together thematically around the challenges of U.S. leadership and its commitment to democratic policy in the world today.

The Atlantic

While drenched in superlatives, Yoni Appelbaum's piece titled Is the American Idea Over?, one of the headliners in the latest Atlantic issue, covers a range of survey points and perspective on the U.S.'s role in the world today, and how its population is reckoning with it.

It is no surprise that younger Americans have lost faith in a system that no longer seems to deliver on its promise—and yet, the degree of their disillusionment is stunning. Nearly three-quarters of Americans born before the Second World War assign the highest value—10 out of 10—to living in a democracy; less than a third of those born since 1980 do the same. A quarter of the latter group say it’s unimportant to choose leaders in free elections; just shy of a third think civil rights are needed to protect people’s liberties. Americans are not alone; much of western Europe is similarly disillusioned.

But most notable (and agreeable) is the reality that true democracy is fragile, an ever-escalating balancing act of security, freedom, opportunity, and tolerance of differences:

The greatest danger facing American democracy is complacence. The democratic experiment is fragile, and its continued survival improbable. Salvaging it will require enlarging opportunity, restoring rights, and pursuing equality, and thereby renewing faith in the system that delivers them. This, really, is the American idea: that prosperity and justice do not exist in tension, but flow from each other. Achieving that ideal will require fighting as if the fate of democracy itself rests upon the struggle—because it does.

The Economist

America’s global influence has dwindled under Donald Trump

On trade, [Donald Trump] remains wedded to a zero-sum view of the world, in which exporters “win” and importers “lose”. (Are the buyers of Ivanka Trump-branded clothes and handbags, which are made in Asia, losers?) Mr Trump has made clear that he favours bilateral deals over multilateral ones, because that way a big country like America can bully small ones into making concessions. The trouble with this approach is twofold. First, it is deeply unappealing to small countries, which by the way also have protectionist lobbies to overcome. Second, it would reproduce the insanely complicated mishmash of rules that the multilateral trade system was created to simplify and trim. The Trump team probably will not make a big push to disrupt global trade until tax reform has passed through Congress. But when and if that happens, all bets are off—NAFTA is still in grave peril.

The New York Times

If you haven't first read anything about the Paradise Papers, it's essential reading for the weekend. In a follow-up op-ed, Gabriel Zucman noodles on how we can enact policy to stop corporations and the wealthy from avoiding taxes in havens around the world:

The United States loses, according to my estimates, close to $70 billion a year in tax revenue due to the shifting of corporate profits to tax havens. That’s close to 20 percent of the corporate tax revenue that is collected each year. This is legal.

Meanwhile, an estimated $8.7 trillion, 11.5 percent of the entire world’s G.D.P., is held offshore by ultrawealthy households in a handful of tax shelters, and most of it isn’t being reported to the relevant tax authorities. This is… not so legal.

These figures represent a huge loss of resources that, if collected, could be used to cut taxes on the rest of us, or spent on social programs to help people in our societies.

The Two Faces of Apple

The evolution and success of Apple products in the future will likely hinge on how deep their commitment to privacy is, and whether they’ll have the ability to meet features and levels of personalization their competition is slinging. As such, two recent articles from The Wall Street Journal highlight both these challenges.

First up is Robert McMillan’s piece on Apple’s expansion of “cutting edge” privacy methodologies. We first heard about this shift at last year’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), the annual development get-together Apple hosts on the west coast. Essentially, Apple is investing serious resources into, and anchoring product integrity around what the industry calls differential privacy.

Two years ago, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered shoppers could be identified by linking social-media accounts to anonymous credit-card records and bits of secondary information, such as the location or timing of purchases.

”I don’t think people are aware of how easy it is getting to de-anonymize data,” said Ishaan Nerurkar, whose startup LeapYear Technologies Inc. sells software for leveraging machine learning while using differential privacy to keep user data anonymous.

Differentially private algorithms blur the data being analyzed by adding a measurable amount of statistical noise. This could be done, for example, by swapping out one question (have you ever committed a violent crime?) with a question that has a statistically known response rate (were you born in February?). Someone trying to find links in the data would never be sure which question a particular person was asked. That lets researchers analyze sensitive data such as medical records without being able to tie the data back to specific people.

Whether the expansion of this methodology will be successful, or prove a hindrance for Apple, is yet to be seen. The establishment media is casting it as a do-or-die juncture in Apple’s commitment to artificial intelligence and machine-learning initiatives. And while other companies are starting to pursue differential privacy, it is a hindrance to core products many of them have, so it’s really only being applied to photo applications and not advertising platforms, for instance.

But no matter how much Apple invests in ways to further its hardware and software services while ringing the privacy bell, it still is beholden to governments. And so: enter China.

Apple has been pressing hard into China over the last several years. As of 2017, it is Apple’s third largest market behind the US and Europe, but has started to slide due (likely) to the increasing competition in the country. According to The Wall Street Journal (again!), Apple has recently buckled under governmental pressure, and will be complying with China to store all cloud data for Chinese customers with a government-owned company.

Apple said it made the latest change to comply with China’s new rules on data storage and cloud-services operation that went into effect June 1 as part of sweeping new regulations aimed at improving cybersecurity. It also said the new data center would improve speed and reliability for customers in China.

The Silicon Valley company has been one of the technology industry’s strongest advocates for fending off government incursions into user data. In a statement, Apple said it has “strong data privacy and security protections in place and no backdoors will be created into any of our systems.”

The latest move comes as Apple has been facing increasing regulatory headwinds in China. Last year, for example, its online book and movie services was shut down by authorities, who didn’t give specific reasons for the closing.

These kinds of things are bound to happen. Apple has also had to recently navigate opening retail stores in India, as the government there had restricted companies with “cutting edge technology” to perform sales without first sourcing some percentage of components locally. This Indian law has apparently pushed sales in that country further back still.

As we see Apple continue to press forward on its hardware, software, and integration fronts, the challenge of maintaining privacy will be tested. They are one of the few, if only, major technology companies left with such goals — time will tell if they can pull it off, or if customer interest cares at all.

Update: Aug 13, 2017.

Thoughtful piece by economist Tyler Cowen on this ordeal over at Bloomberg: Don't Be Too Hard on Apple for Bending to China.

Apple is still doing plenty to help Chinese citizens counter their censors. It sells chat and messenging apps in China that allow for encryption. Apple iPhones and iPads, bought in the U.S., bypass Chinese censorship altogether when they use the 4G network (not Wi-Fi); presumably some Chinese citizens have bought these products and use them. Perhaps most important, VPN apps are still available in China through other means, or overseas, and Chinese citizens can download them and combine them with Apple products to help bypass censorship. Apple has hardly backed away from its mission of tying the world together.

Facebook's Data Dilemma

Authoring a tech post on the Guardian this past Tuesday, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, a former product manager at Facebook, explains how he "was charged with turning Facebook data into money, by any legal means":

Converting Facebook data into money is harder than it sounds, mostly because the vast bulk of your user data is worthless. Turns out your blotto-drunk party pics and flirty co-worker messages have no commercial value whatsoever.

But occasionally, if used very cleverly, with lots of machine-learning iteration and systematic trial-and-error, the canny marketer can find just the right admixture of age, geography, time of day, and music or film tastes that demarcate a demographic winner of an audience. The “clickthrough rate”, to use the advertiser’s parlance, doesn’t lie.

Yadda yadda, we've heard this all before. It's how most ad platforms operate these days -- harnessing machine-learning and all sorts of other [likely] hobbled together algorithms that provide conduits for proprietary data to advertisers and agencies to use in various campaigns to micro-target audiences and potential customers.

This is probably where privacy advocates should come shouting that this is a misuse of personal data. But is it? Facebook has provided its users a free service monetized by users' own tenacity to share and provide Facebook (and, subsequently, its advertisers) everything about themselves. While you could argue that some of the data provided is "personally identifiable information" (PII), Facebook hasn't forced you to share that information. And since users provide that information, Facebook can more or less do what it wants with it. Garcia-Martinez tends to agree, arguing that processing profile traits and post contents to inform demographic and audience triggers can easily be done with programming, so should its application matter to the masses?

The hard reality is that Facebook will never try to limit such use of their data unless the public uproar reaches such a crescendo as to be un-mutable. Which is what happened with Trump and the “fake news” accusation: even the implacable Zuck had to give in and introduce some anti-fake news technology. But they’ll slip that trap as soon as they can. And why shouldn’t they? At least in the case of ads, the data and the clickthrough rates are on their side.

There's also a link to another Guardian post that discusses how Facebook shares teens' emotional states with advertisers (likely derived by some kind of algorithm-based sentiment model). If we've learned anything at all about algorithms, it's that they can misinform as often as they can inform. A user uproar could certainly change the fate of data sharing with advertisers, but I don't see this happening until something truly offensive occurs, probably akin to Target's mishap a few years ago. And even that won't stop the use of data to inform advertising campaigns and the marketing of products/services on these platforms. The temptation (and intrinsic need) to use data is too fierce. And the rate of engagement on these platforms, with the amount of information being provided on a daily basis, is unprecidented by anything similar in human history.

While platforms like Facebook continue to require our attention to survive, they increasingly also need us to provide data to feed its monetary engine. The two are almost inexplicably tied together. Time and tolerance will tell how this shakes out.

The Trials of Deleting Uber

Uber's public image has had a hell of a first quarter. I can't recall the last tech company in recent history that ran into shitstorm after shitstorm as reliably and as damningly as they have. In today's New York Times, there's a profile on Uber CEO Travis Kalanick by Mike Isaac that details some of these tribulations, among them them a confrontation with Apple's CEO, Tim Cook. Notably, Uber had attempted to obfuscate from Apple its nefarious practices around user location-tracking and device-identifying (called "fingerprinting"). This practice would allow Uber to identify an individual iPhone even after the app was deleted and/or the phone reset. If it sounds egregious, it is. As The Verge points out, this is more of the same deceptive bullshit Uber has pulled off in recent years, including “evad[ing] government regulators and track[ing] rival drivers, track[ing] customers without permission, and being sued for allegedly stealing proprietary information regarding self-driving cars from Alphabet’s Waymo. “

Can most of this be blamed on the CEO? According to that profile, probably:

But the previously unreported encounter with Mr. Cook showed how Mr. Kalanick was also responsible for risk-taking that pushed Uber beyond the pale, sometimes to the very brink of implosion.

Crossing that line was not a one-off for Mr. Kalanick. According to interviews with more than 50 current and former Uber employees, investors and others with whom the executive had personal relationships, Mr. Kalanick, 40, is driven to the point that he must win at whatever he puts his mind to and at whatever cost — a trait that has now plunged Uber into its most sustained set of crises since its founding in 2009.

As long as deleting apps and still having the potentiality of being tracked by the deleted company is a threat to privacy and security, I hope technology gate companies like Apple continue to fight the good fight.

Update (APRIL 24, 2017)

Additional speculation (and clarification) from the fallout of the New York Times profile article from John Gruber (Apple pundit extraordinaire):

That sounds like Uber was doing the identifying and “tagging” (whatever that is) after the app had been deleted and/or the device wiped, but I think what it might — might — actually mean is merely that the identification persisted after the app had been deleted and/or the device wiped. That’s not supposed to be technically possible — iOS APIs for things like the UDID and even the MAC address stopped reporting unique identifiers years ago, because they were being abused by privacy invasive ad trackers, analytics packages, and entitled shitbags like Uber. That’s wrong, and Apple was right to put an end to it, but it’s far less sensational than the prospect of Uber having been able to identify and “tag” an iPhone after the Uber app had been deleted. The latter scenario only seems technically possible if other third-party apps were executing surreptitious code that did this stuff through Uber’s SDK, or if the Uber app left behind malware outside the app’s sandbox. I don’t think that’s the case, if only because I don’t think Apple would have hesitated to remove Uber from the App Store if it was infecting iPhones with hidden phone-home malware.

John's whole piece is worth reading if you want much clarity on what Uber was presumably doing. Curious what their tactics were/are for other phone manufacturers.

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